Saturday, March 1, 2014

Is leading your horse a real drag?

In the winter months, our horses sleep inside with us.  I know, I know, they are incredibly spoiled, but we are blessed to live in a barn.  They sleep downstairs, we sleep upstairs.  There are all kinds of benefits to this arrangement.  Most horse folks could readily see the benefits, but let me outline them to the odd spouse that may be vehemently opposed to such an "earthy" living arrangement.

First of all, it helps us heat our house in the winter months.  Even just 4 horses in the barn with no additional heat can keep the barn at a toasty 40 degrees most of the time.  In extreme temps they will still keep it above freezing.  When all 7 of them are in, we have to crack the barn door or it gets too warm in there. It also decreased our building costs; two buildings for the price of one, and allowed us to make better use of our property.  We get to monitor each horse's individual feed and water consumption at least over night so that we can do a systems check on each horse daily.  If a horse should colic in the middle of the night for whatever reason, we are quickly awakened by the rolling or pawing.  This has come in handy on multiple occasions.  The best benefit of all, though, is I can go down and kiss my horses goodnight in my pj's without putting my shoes or coat on.

When we first started this about 6 years ago we had 4 horses that were reasonably easy to handle and one nasty old mare that was a real bear.   That was the year of the terrible snow fall and we weren't ready for it. Our barn wasn't completely finished, and we had no running water, kitchen, or furniture.  We spent each evening, late into the nigh,t working on finishing the living area and barn.  Because we were busy and unprepared for record snow fall we had narrow little paths carved through the snow that we couldn't walk beside the horses as we led them in.  Our gates were difficult to open because of all the snow and the horses would often bolt through the gate over the top of us with no place to move out of the way as they made a break for the barn. (Incedently, I challenge anyone who thinks horses don't need or want to sleep in a barn to stand in front of one on a narrow snowy trail when they are in a hurry to get there) We thought we'd be smart and just start opening the gate and getting out of the way so that they could run down the paths to the barn themselves and into their stalls.  This worked great for awhile.  It made bringing the horses in each night a real cinch.  The problem was that they got worse and worse about rushing the gate and if we tried to lead them they decided they were in charge and drug us along like skijourers  behind them.   After a few hairy late night experiences where both my husband and I saw our lives flash before us we decided that we better take control of the situation.  So, for a time we haltered each of the horses and backed them down that snowy narrow trail all the way to the barn.  Since the snow was above knees and hocks they were motivated to keep themselves on the trail and they really couldn't turn around because it was too narrow.

It took most of the horses one or two trips. Granted, these weren't horses that had a long history of bad behavior.  This was a behavior that grew out of poor handling on our part.  The old stubborn mare took 5 nights. She was a recent adoption with a long history of poor handling.  At 30 years of age she had been getting her way for a very, very long time.  She was reluctant to change her established routine, but she did eventually decide that good behavior was far less work.   After that we never had a problem again and the horse's manners just improved.  We began to make them wait on us and calmly be haltered and walk politely down that trail without endangering us or they backed right back into their pens and started over.

This wasn't some revolutionary break through in horse training.  All that happened is that we quit being in a hurry and taking whatever the horses offered and waited for them to actually behave before walking them into the barn.  The reward for them was there already and it didn't take them long to figure out that good behavior equals hay and grain quicker.  We didn't correct the problem with fancy tack, colored sticks, nerve lines, chains or special halters.  We corrected the problem through conscientious handling.  We thought we didn't have time to fix the issues in the dark and deep snow in the dead of winter.  We actually didn't have the time not to fix the issues.  Had we addressed the lapses right when they first occurred instead of being distracted and in a hurry we never would have had the problems we encountered that winter.  It was an abject lesson for us in the quality of handling of our horses.  We believed that with a barn full of older horses we shouldn't need to "train" on them.  My dear 4-H instructor told me long ago that if you aren't training you are un-training.  Our horses' decline into night time barn related anarchy was a perfect example of un-training.

Nowadays we rarely have trouble with the horses when we bring them in, even though we have a pack of youngsters that could sure get all fired up if they wanted to.  The reason is not that we are amazing horseman but we fix each little thing right when it comes up.  You don't let the horse get away with something for a month waiting until you have an opportunity to fix it.  5 or 10 minutes added to your chore time isn't that big of a deal most of the time. Each time you let the horse engage in unwanted behavior without correcting you are inadvertently rewarding that behavior and cementing the behavior deeper so that it takes longer and longer to correct. What may have taken 5 minutes to address today might take a week of 15 minute sessions next month.

I hadn't thought about our year of the nasty horses much lately but was reminded of it tonight as I was catching my 3 year old colt to bring in.  He was 3rd into the barn tonight which didn't suit him very well, so he was in a bit of a hurry.  He wanted to push past me and then push open the gate and let himself out.  That's when I slowed myself down. It was dark.  It was cold.  The wind was blowing.  It was icey.  All reasons that I could have used to justify letting the behavior slide in favor of getting the dang horse in the barn the fastest way possible. But, instead of trying to rush and get his halter on before he got more upset I just stood there and waited for him to tune back into me. I even walked away from the gate and just stood in the middle of the pen.  When he realized the halter wasn't getting on and he wasn't getting into the barn faster he looked over at me as if to say, "Hey, what's the hold up?  Do I need to help you put that thing on?"  So he walked over and calmly lowered his head until I had the halter on.  Then I backed him a few steps, opened the gate and made him wait until I sent him through.  Being an anxious youngster he walked through the gate calmly enough then hit the end of the lead rope, taking the slack out rather sharply as he tried to head to the barn without me.

I gave him one quick pull then slack, signaling to him to yield his hind quarters and face me until I was ready.  Then I yielded him around again, brought his fore quarters through and we walked slowly to the barn.  I had to stop a few times to look at the night sky, adjust my boot and yield his hind quarters over again.  While he wasn't happy with the delay he put up with it knowing anything else would lead to even more time between him and his grain.

As a mobile veterinarian I visit people and their horses in their homes and I'm often quite surprised at folk's inability to catch, lead, or move their horses outside of their pens.  We are frequently asked to tote all of our equipment to the horse's pen because it can't be led away from his fellows, or stand quietly to be worked on without a fiasco.  When I encourage the owner to go ahead and lead the horse out with insistence that all will be well they will walk out, one hand on the halter bracing themselves should the horse act up.  The horse may be prancing all over the top of them or dragging them around, or they are dragging the horse step by step.

These aren't bad horses but they have been done a disservice by well meaning owners.  The very basic manners a horse needs to function in society above and beyond any feats of riding excellence are good ground manners.  That means they need to be able to follow a feel and walk beside a person away from their hay or friends without causing bodily harm to either themselves or their handler.  This is horsey kindergarten and sadly it is often skipped.

The fix is as elementary as learning ABC's and it serves as a foundation for every other thing you will do with your horses.  Expect manners and respect from your horses, be sure that when they aren't giving you their best behavior you make whatever changes are necessary to ensure that they do.  It sounds simple and it really is.  Handle your horses with quality each and every time you handle them and the incidences of misbehavior will decrease dramatically.

I didn't say your horses will become perfect angels all the time.  That depends on their general demeanor and how long they have been bullying over their handler but all horses have the ability and desire to behave.  They just need to be shown how.

While there are piles and piles of DVDs out there to teach the do-it-yourselfer how to transform the savage beast into Grandma's broke pony the best advice for any horseman is to remember quality in your interactions with your horse.  Don't avoid difficult situations with your horse such as leading him away from his mates or tying for periods of time just so that you don't have to upset your horse.  Help your horse by putting him into those situations during times you can help him through it and cope.  Don't rush through bad behavior waiting for the time to fix the problem.  Fix problems as they arise and your horse will have fewer and fewer problems to fix.

It's the quality of time we spend with our horses not the quantity.  Make each interaction count towards improving your horse's citizenship so that he can become a valued member of the equine community and not an embarrassing footnote in the veterinarian's or farrier's case log notes.